With so much attention focused on improving the operational efficiency of oil and gas production, it is too easy to forget that it all begins with exploration. One company that has built its success on smart and targeted exploration is Exxon Mobil Corp. so asking Michael Cousins, the major’s senior vice president, exploration and new ventures, to define success in hydrocarbon explorations seem an excellent place to start.

“I would say Liza in Guyana represents success, Zohr in Egypt represents success, Glaucus in Cyprus represents success,” Cousins said. “I would put to you that success in exploration comes from two things. It comes from identifying and capturing opportunities, way ahead of your competition. Then managing that inventory and portfolio to the best of your ability, making sure you do not walk too early from these opportunities, make sure that you see them through.”
It’s Not All About Seismic

Michael Cousins
Michael Cousins (Source: Exxon Mobil Corp.)

When it comes to the topic of technology, the focus seems to be on Cousins’ second point, the production of the hydrocarbon. “It’s true when you talk about new technology in general, people tend to think about the second one,” he continues. “How do we make the most of the inventory of opportunities we have? We all gravitate to seismic, to 3-D seismic.”

This attraction to concentrate on seismic acquisition makes perfect sense. It required handing vast volumes of data, it is patent-rich, and it is very labor intensive. “That is what we gravitate to,” Cousins continued. “But I put to you that by the time we get the 3-D seismic, you have already lost the race to find the next big opportunity.”

Accessing Hoarded Knowledge
Cousins believes that instead of seismic data, the industry should be focused on accessing the minds, or knowledge, of the hundreds of thousands of geoscientists that have come before.

“How do we see what they recognize?” he wondered. “How do we take advantage of the things that they recognize, that they saw, but they did not recognize? How to take advantage of the things they could not even imagine?

“That is the focus that I think we should be taking when we think about the new technology,” he continued. “When you think about artificial intelligence, big data management, sediment analysis, to look at the tens of millions of documents that exist in our industry, that talk about the theory, the areas around the world where you have the opportunity to potentially find the next Brazil subsalt, or find the next Guyana.

“Think about accessing the minds of tens of thousands of geoscientists that come before us, and harnessing the power of new technology to define what others have not found.”

The route to mining the vast wealth of knowledge and capturing nondigital data is simple, according to Cousins. You need the commitment to digitize and reference the hundreds of millions of documents that have been generated over the decades.

“Once you do that, you can draw out the feelings, the sentiment in the documents to look for those subtle things that you cannot normally see,” he said. “You have to commit to digitizing that because it is completely practical to do that and the technology allows you to investigate and analyze that.”


Lowest Cost Takes The Prize
For Cousins, it is all about cost, and he firmly believes that the one with the lowest cost to supply wins. “If you can utilize the technology to find those rocks, find those reservoirs that have the lowest cost to supply and you can produce them in a way that also is the lowest cost to supply then that benefits everybody, and that will be the person that wins,” he said.

Cousins is also adamant that new technology and mining of data is just as crucial for the U.S. shale business as it is for conventional exploration.

“Many people assume that technology did not have an impact on the shale revolution, that is flat out wrong,” he said. “Those of you that keep hearing from your engineering counterparts, that it is a statistical play, that it is simply a matter of carpet bombing is completely wrong.”

He is unyielding in his belief that there is no difference with the unconventionals than there is with conventional reservoirs.

“Those who have the sweet spot, those who have the best reservoir, those that understand the reservoirs and how they connect again will win,” he said. “The unconventionals depend upon the technology such as artificial intelligence and data analytics just as much as conventional plays. The best unconventional players and they’re getting fewer and fewer as consolidation happens in the industry, understand that the use of that technology to get the absolute most out of each and every reservoir is what makes them successful. Moreover, that cannot be achieved just by human interaction.”